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U.S. Kids Eat Nearly As Much Salt As Adults, Putting Health At Risk

These sandwiches may look the same, but the one on the left has a total of 1,522 milligrams of salt (per whole sandwich), while the other one has only 853 mg.
These sandwiches may look the same, but the one on the left has a total of 1,522 milligrams of salt (per whole sandwich), while the other one has only 853 mg.

Yes, we love salt. It makes everything taste better. But as a society, we're eating way too much of it. And, so are our children.

A new study from researchers at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention shows that children in the U.S. between the ages of 8 and 18 are eating, on average, 3,387 mg per day. That's about the same amount as adults. But it's a lot more than the 2,300 mg daily limit recommended by the federal dietary guidelines.

And the result? Janelle Gunn, a public health analyst with the CDC, says it's pretty clear. "We found that higher sodium intake was associated with higher blood pressure," she says.

The association was strongest among children who were overweight. "We found among overweight and obese participants (in the study), that for every 1,000 mg of sodium they consumed, their blood pressure response was seven times greater (compared to healthy-weight children)," explains Gunn.

Overall, the researchers found that about 15 percent of the children in the study had high either elevated or high blood pressure. In adults, high blood pressure is considered a major risk factor for heart disease and stroke.

So where is all this sodium coming from? Experts say it's not so much an overuse of the salt shaker as it is consumption of processed foods. And, as the sandwich above points out, lots of sodium slips into our diets without us realizing it — even in bread. As we've reported, babies may be getting too much, too.

Some kids' favorites, like McDonald Chicken McNuggets, has 540 mg of salt in a six-piece serving. According to a nutrition label, Kraft Macaroni and Cheese has 560 mg per serving (serving size 70g), and a medium order of Burger King French Fries has 570 mg.

Research has shown that following a low-sodium diet known as DASH helps reduce high blood pressure. But there are other factors that can influence the condition as well, including weight, physical activity, family history and ethnicity.

The study is based on a survey of 6,235 children, aged 8 to 18 years old. The participants give detailed reports about what they're eating, and researchers measure blood pressure as well as weight. The results are published in the journal Pediatrics.

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Allison Aubrey is a correspondent for NPR News, where her stories can be heard on Morning Edition and All Things Considered. She's also a contributor to the PBS NewsHour and is one of the hosts of NPR's Life Kit.
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